Working During COVID-19: Special Education Department

This article is part of a series about how IMESD Departments have adapted their work during the COVID-19 emergency.

Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things about the ways people work. Before it changed the way schools deliver instruction to students, IMESD’s Special Education Department was busy supporting newer special education teachers throughout eastern Oregon per the ESD’s Local Service Plan. The department has a Director, Corrina Robinson, and one full-time Special Education Specialist, Gretchen McKay.

McKay’s position was new to the IMESD for the 19-20 school year. According to Robinson, since the beginning of the school year, she and McKay had developed, shaped and adjusted  supports in response to district needs. McKay was providing monthly trainings, visiting with teachers in person and assisting with paperwork and procedural/compliance requirements of special education.

The first year of learning a new position can be challenging. Then March 12th arrived -- Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered school districts in Oregon to close due COVID-19. Initially, districts were to provide “supplemental” learning, which eventually developed into Distance Learning for All as the closure was extended until the end of the school year.

Now, like all Oregon teachers, special education teachers had to figure out how to provide their instruction and interventions remotely and ensure that students were receiving equitable services. They received some guidance from ODE (Oregon Department of Education), but many things they simply had to figure out.

“Special education services being implemented through distance learning requires some creativity,” said Robinson. “Finding ways to meet the IEP (Individualized Education Program) requirements for students, paperwork requirements for IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and ODE took a great deal of time, planning, organization and grace. It was challenging to do all of this remotely after being so connected in person with the special education teachers.”

Over Spring Break and throughout the closure, McKay developed a Google drive with documents required for special education in order to communicate how IEP services would be delivered during distance learning.  Robinson and McKay continued to add, update and share these documents as they worked with ODE, the Hungerford Law firm and regional special education directors to navigate services, processes and legal requirements. McKay’s role shifted from supporting new special education teachers before the pandemic to being a valuable resource to ALL special education teachers and directors during the planning and implementing of special education services during distance learning.

Robinson and McKay stayed connected with districts and families virtually via Zoom, Google meets, phone conferences and email. According to Robinson, “Gretchen has remained connected, positive and flexible. The time and effort she put in at the beginning of the year with teachers was the most beneficial in supporting them throughout the stay-at-home order.”

Robinson said it is sometimes challenging to support special education teachers remotely if teachers’ skills in technology were limited -- not everyone was comfortable with Google docs, Zoom meetings and providing instruction virtually. “We have learned a lot, helped each other a lot and shared many, many resources. We are always encouraging our students to be resilient and patient, and we have really had to practice those skills ourselves,” Robinson said.